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Moth or Butterfly?

Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission - Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Is that a moth or a butterfly? How do you know?

Because of their similarities, people often have difficulty determining the difference between moths and butterflies. Although there are some exceptions to the rules, you should be able to use the information below to help you discern which insect you are observing.

Antennae

This is probably the most commonly known difference between butterflies and moths. Butterflies have thin antennae that are club-shaped at the end, often depicted in children’s artwork by a large dot on each end of the antennae. Moths have feathery or comb-like antennae often referred to as “fuzzy”. They can have thin antennae like butterflies, but without the clubbed ends. This is the basis for the taxonomic divisions in Lepidoptera; Rhopalocera or “clubbed horn” are the butterflies and the Heterocera or “varied horn” are the moths.

Metamorphosis

Butterflies and moths pupate (become adults) in similar, yet different ways. They both go through a metamorphosis in a protective shell, called a chrysalis. However, moths spin a silk cocoon around their chrysalis, sometimes using leaves or other materials to camouflage it.

Time of Activity

Moths are typically either nocturnal or crepuscular (active at dusk and dawn). Butterflies are typically diurnal (active during the day). Photo at right of luna moth (Actias luna) by Eric Hunt, Arkansas Native Plant Society.

 

Resting Posture

Butterflies often fold their wings and hold them upright above their backs when they are at rest, but will sometimes “sun” with their wings spread. Moths usually rest with their wings spread out to the side or draped down their backs. Sometimes moths will fold their wings above their backs while resting, but only when there is no room to spread their wings out.

Wing and Body Structure

Many moths have a filament called a frenulum that comes from the hindwing matching up with the barbs on the forewing. Some moths have a lobe on the forewing called a jugum that helps the forewing to match up with the hindwing. Butterflies do not have these wing structures.

Moths often have hairy, furry-looking thick bodies. Butterflies appear more slender and their abdomens are smoother. Moths also have larger scales on their wings, giving them a more dense and fluffy appearance; butterflies have fine scales on their wings. It is hypothesized that moths need the insulation for cool nights, whereas butterflies need to be able to absorb energy from the sun.

Wing Coloration

Butterflies are known for their vivid, bright colors and patterns (although there are a few butterflies with dull coloring, like the Cabbage White butterfly). Moths usually have muted, less vivid colors and their wings have patterns of zigzags or swirls that act as camouflage. The exception is seen in some day-flying moths that have brightly colored wings that serve as a defense by telling predators that they are toxic. It is also believed that these moths evolved vivid coloring so that their mates could locate them by sight during daylight hours, rather than by pheromones, as nocturnal moths do.



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